Delhi airport chaos: Are we prepared for the worst?

T3 chaos was terrible, but are we prepared for worse to come?

The booming aviation market has already pushed India to be the fourth largest in this sector after the United States, the United Kingdom and China. But many fear that if the infrastructure does not keep up, the projected gains could vanish.
First Published: Dec 23,2022 06:09PM
by Rasheed Kappan

Last Updated on December 23, 2022

Delhi Airport | Photo courtesy: @MoCA_GoI | Twitter

The bizarre, chaotic, extended rush-hour crowds at the national capital’s Airport Terminal-3 (T3) during an unprecedented holiday season hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. But, as the airport struggled for a semblance of orderly crowd management, big questions are being raised on ‘outdated’ security processes, rarely used tech interventions and the need for a policy shift in aerodromes nationwide.

In aviation circles, the Delhi airport chaos was dismissed as a one-off seasonal episode sparked by post-pandemic ‘pent-up’ demand, often dubbed as ‘revenge travel.’ Major tourist destinations have opened up, and holiday travellers are in a rush to make up. But this extreme seasonal surge only partly explains the serious systemic gaps exposed dramatically by T3’s teething troubles.

“A lot of security-related processes by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) are hopelessly outdated. Many of the layers are redundant and add to the congestion and choke points,” points out a key member of the Airport Users Consultative Committee (AUCC), preferring anonymity.

One issue is this: “When you go through the metal detector, they make you take off the belt. But why then make you go through the DFMD (Door Frame Metal Detector) again? If it beeps, they put you through a deep physical check, delaying the entire process per passenger by 10-15 minutes. Processes such as this needlessly force deployment of staff when they could be used elsewhere,” the member explains.

The Temi robots installed at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru to respond to basic questions of passengers on the airport and facilities | Photo courtesy: BIAL

Redundant security layers

Stamping the boarding pass adds another layer. “If your security process is foolproof, you don’t need stamping. If it is not foolproof, any amount of stamping is not going to prevent a lapse.”

In many airports, particularly in the big metros, transit passengers are required to go through the security process again. Wonders the AUCC member, “My question is, by forcing me to get checked all over again, are you not trusting the CISF and their process?”

At T3, security check delays are one of the most critical congestion triggers. The CISF men are tasked with frisking and checking the bags of over 2,700 passengers every hour. Hundreds of passengers entering the terminal are divided into 17 lanes before they proceed further. “You can never plan for a breezy entry or exit at the airport. Your entire planned schedule goes haywire,” notes Arjun Nair, a frequent flyer.

In Delhi, as urban mobility analyst Sanjeev Dyamannavar points out, passengers are often required to scan the bar codes to generate boarding passes themselves. “It takes two to three minutes for people to get used to it. But for many others who are not so mobile-friendly, the process can get cumbersome, adding to the delays.”

What worsened the congestion this season for T3 was the diversion of many flights from Terminals 1 and 2, both of which are currently being upgraded and expanded. Once completed, Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport is estimated to get a capacity boost from the existing 66 Million Passengers Per Annum (MPPA) to 100 MPPA.

Delhi Airport | Photo courtesy: @MoCA_GoI | Twitter

Real-time data, response

But even with a capacity boost, things could suddenly go out of control if precautionary measures are not taken on the basis of real-time passenger data, says Sanjeev. “Airlines would suddenly upgrade from a 200-seater to a 300-seater aircraft, increasing both the passenger inflow and outflow. Flight delays and disruptions could complicate matters further. The available infrastructure will have to adapt to these sudden changes accordingly while minimising passenger discomfort.”

At the Kempegowda International Airport (KIA) in Bengaluru, early morning fog used to disrupt hundreds of flights during the winter months. Extreme congestion was a recurring problem, affecting thousands of passengers.

Delays had a cascading effect throughout the day. Only the launch of a new second runway, equipped with a Category-III Instrument Landing System (ILS) with improved visibility for pilots, addressed the issue to an extent. But the first runway is still handicapped by a CAT-I ILS, unable to cater to flights landing in poor visibility conditions.

To address congestion issues beyond fog-related disruptions, the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) took the technology route. “Passengers can now use the enhanced BLR Airport app to get real-time information on tracking flight status; queue time estimates for various passenger touch-points like entry gates, check-in counters, and security checks,” informs a BIAL spokesperson.

Technology has also played a key role in another area of congestion concern: The unending queue of trays where passengers deposit their electronic devices, belts, jackets, wristwatches and other valuables before they are X-Ray screened. Many airports mandate that passengers use different trays for laptops, for instance, kicking off a mad scramble for a limited number of trays.

Automated Tray Retrieval

So, what did BIAL do to get over this problem? An Automated Tray Retrieval System (ATRS) where empty trays are automatically returned on smart lays to the preparation area for passengers to place their bags and belongings. The automated rollers also enable trays to move automatically into the screening machine without requiring passengers or staff to push.

To accommodate both domestic and foreign traffic during peak hours, BIAL has now transformed two international automated tray retrieval system lanes into swing lanes. “All checkpoints have members of our trained personnel to ensure crowd rerouting and even distribution between zones. We have deployed additional personnel at the security hold area to remind passengers to remove restricted items from their luggage,” informs the spokesperson.

But the best of technologies could turn challenging if any change in the system/traffic is not dynamically monitored. Sanjeev explains, “One line getting cleared very fast and another moving very slowly could also create problems. Power failures could lead to systemic disruptions. It is critical to track how many boarded, how many alighted, say, five aircraft on the tarmac, in real-time.”

CCTV cameras, he points out, could check the source of overcrowding and chokepoints to help take quick remedial measures. “It is all about crowd management. Besides CISF, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), Ministry of Civil Aviation and even the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) should check recurring trends and take appropriate action,” he says.

DigiYatra experience 

A DigiYatra EGate at the Kempegowda International Airport Photo courtesy: BIAL

Widespread adoption of new technology by the public is critical for such interventions to gain ground and bring changes. But the biometric-based DigiYatra system introduced in Delhi T3, KIA, Varanasi and a few other airports is yet to get mainstream. Aviation experts say the airports, airlines and other stakeholders should clear all concerns related to the face-recognition-based system and boost awareness.

Going by the design, DigiYatra offers a seamless experience for passengers. At T3, for instance, once a passenger arrives at Gate 2A, designated as E-Gate, their bar-coded Boarding Pass / Mobile Boarding Pass is scanned. The passenger then looks into the E-Gate camera fitted with a Face Recognition System (FRS). Once successfully validated, the E-Gate opens, letting the passenger inside the terminal.

The passenger drops their luggage at the check-in desk and walks to the DigiYatra Gate at Zone 1. They again look into the E-Gate camera fitted with FRS. Once the identity is validated, the E-Gate opens for the security check.

The system’s penetration among passengers was less when DigiYatra was first introduced at KIA. “People were sensitive, worried about how the facial data will be used by the system. Although it was rolled out in phases, the public was wary. The data is very secure. It is not stored beyond a few hours after the departure,” says an airport insider, who wishes to be unnamed.

Web check-in, poor adoption

Web check-in, if widely adopted, could have helped airlines and airports tide over staff shortages. The pandemic downturn has forced many airlines to lay off employees, and recruitment of new, trained staff has taken time. “But very few people use the web check-in facility, despite the availability of machines that print the boarding pass. To boost usage, this has to be integrated into the airlines’ systems even more.”

Rush-hour traffic often clogs the approach roads just outside the airports. In Bengaluru, cab drivers say they spend at least 20-30 minutes just to enter the terminal halt area where passengers unload. Monday mornings and Friday nights are particularly crowded. Prior web check-ins could make a big difference, saving time.

The holiday season has still not peaked, and congestion issues could spread to airports across the country. Besides, the booming aviation market has already pushed India to be the fourth largest in this sector after the United States, the United Kingdom and China. But many fear that if the infrastructure does not keep up, the projected gains could vanish.

Deploying additional manpower at security gates and immigration counters, more X-ray machines, and asking passengers to be at the airport 3.5 hours before departure are all signs of a system trying desperately to catch up. They could do more by installing do-it-yourself video display boards to help passengers do a lot more processes by themselves, and this could ease congestion and address staff shortage.

But to be smartly ahead of the demand curve, airport experts say, the systems should foresee emergencies that could play havoc with the best plans. Data built over many years should be leveraged to formulate policies and processes, effect infrastructural design tweaks and make airport passage a comfortable, seamless experience. If not, the T1s, T2s and T3s will only get more chaotic.

Rasheed Kappan is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru with nearly three decades of experience. In the past, he has worked in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu and The Times of India, covering issues related to urban mobility, sustainibility, environment and the interface between policy, planning and activation on the ground. A graphic cartoonist, he is the founder of Kappansky and explores the linkages of art, media and innovation through multiple creative platforms.

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